Organizational learning


Next month marks my tenth year as an independent consultant.  How time flies when you’re, well, learning to fly…

Favorite-things

As I look back over those years, and the privilege of working with 120 different organisations, there are many high spots (as well the odd moment I’d prefer to forget!).  One particular type of activity stands out as my favourite, running a knowledge-sharing and learning consortium.

Let me explain how they work, and why they are so effective.

They typically start with a conversation initiated by a client which goes something like this…

“We keep going to conferences and feel like we’re hearing from the usual suspects, and seeing the same glossy presentations, but not learning anything new.   Could you find us a number of peer organisations to learn from and with – and facilitate a number of high-intensity meetings for us?”

And in a nutshell, that’s what a knowledge-sharing consortium is: a limited series of meetings between different organisations at similar levels of maturity with a commitment to openly share and learn. You could say that it’s the perfect blend of a Community of Practice and a Peer Assist, with a brilliant mix of non-competing organisations.

I have co-facilitated my consortium programmes with my good friend and consultant colleague Elizabeth Lank. It takes the energy and abilities of two facilitators to help 25 participants get the maximum benefit from their investment. You need to give it everything you’ve got. I know that both Elizabeth and I end each event with that feeling of “positive-tiredness” that comes after the last member has departed happy and the celebratory G&T has been poured, to help with our After Action Review.

So thank you to Schlumberger, Shell, BT, Unilever, GSK, Freshfields, Oracle, ABN Amro, Syngenta,  Pfizer, PwC, Freshfields, NHS, Audit Commission, the International Olympic Committee and others – thank you for making those events so memorable and enjoyable.

Here are my reflections…

Lessons, recommendations and design principles for a knowledge-sharing consortium.

  • Forming a consortium works best when there is a founding organization – a client with a need and a curiosity and desire to learn. Recruiting and inviting other participating companies is so much easier when you can say, for example, “Schlumberger are looking to learn from some other great knowledge companies about maximising the value from Communities of Practice. Would you be interested in joining us?”
  • We found that 4-8 member organisations worked best. Any less than 4 and members feel that they are exhausting the possibilities for learning. If you go much higher then 8 and it becomes too difficult to sustain relationships or remember what was discussed – you end up with something more like a conference.
  • Ask for 2-4 participants per company. This enables them to provide members from complimentary functions in their own organisations, and gives a critical mass for company break-out moments when they create space and time to consider “what will we do with all the good practice ideas that we’re picking up?. It also enables them to share their own story from multiple perspectives.
  • The series of meetings (usually 3 or 4 over a 12 month period) is deliberately time-bound, with a clear end in mind. This gives a focus and a helpful sense of urgency to extract the maximum value from every hour of each event.
  • Invest in forming relationships right from the start. Ensure each event has an over-night stay in a pleasant venue, great food and drink, space for informal conversations. Ensure that people have bios or social media profiles available, and include early ice-breaker events which make use of this information and get the group laughing together.
  • Ensure that there are sessions where participating organisations tell their story (as creatively as they like – you might chose to ban PowerPoint from some sessions). Balance this time evenly between telling and asking questions. Do everything you can to make it unlike a conference!
  • Solve real problems brought by the participants, as early as the first meeting. This sets the tone not just for subsequent face-to-face meetings, but creates the expectation and openness to request and respond.
  • Have fun together! We’ve incorporated treasure hunts, photo-safaris, museum trips, role-play, board games, playlists and karaoke into the designs in order to create memories, bind the group together, and, well enjoy having fun!
  • Make full use of artifacts. If every picture tells a story, then physical objects can write a book. We’ve curated displays of awards, posters, t-shirts, stress balls, card games, mugs, books, calendars and quizzes and explored their effectiveness at length. It’s been brilliant to see some consensual stealing-with-pride going on between the members.
  • Stay flexible. The best-planned agenda needs to be sacrificed if the group collectively choose to go somewhere else. We’ve learned to build in flexibility and use methods like Openspace to keep the power of choice firmly in the hands of the participants.
  • Vary the methods, techniques and tools – and debrief their use with the participants. We have found that our participants have really valued the use of new techniques. We’ve introduced reverse brainstorming, appreciative inquiry, project retrospects, social reporting, knowledge asset creation, social network mapping, speed-consulting, peer assists – and some experimental techniques which evolve on the day. Every time we use a technique, we review the outcome and the process and encourage reflection in company teams on how they can be adapted for use.
  • Focus facilitation on the process rather than the content.  Elizabeth and I are both frequently called upon to speak as experts on knowledge management and collaboration, but in a room with 25 experienced practitioners, our focus is usually on helping them to learn from each other – and just interjecting with the occasional story or 10 minute context-setting session.
  • Keep the discussion going between events. We’ve successfully used Google Sites, teleconferences, vlogging, individual telephone calls and even good old email to keep the party going between face-to-face events, and to build anticipation for the next meeting.

kdp

Stop press!  We’ve had an approach from a large international company who want to participate in a consortium focusing on effective collaboration, virtual working and network/community building, and we have just started the search for suitable consortium members.

So if this an area that your organisation has experience with, and you’re particularly interest in joining with some peer organisations to learn more, then please contact me for details.  I can guarantee it’s even better than raindrops on roses…

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Is it true that the best things come in small packages when it comes to knowledge?

I came across this helpful framework for thinking about the way we approach the packaging and sharing of knowledge. (Thanks Elizabeth for spotting it).


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Just in Case.   That’s been the unspoken but underlying mantra of many KM programmes. Let’s capture everything – all of those documents, lessons, transcripts and store them in a folder, just in case we need them in the future. It’s like archiving, but without the indexing rigour that a professional would apply.

So when that moment of need does arrive, it’s often too difficult to extract than insightful nugget or reusable example. It can be like rummaging through the rubbish bin to find that set of keys you dropped. You get messy and frustrated trying, then you give up and get a new set cut.

 

Now of course, there are often procedural and legal reasons why we do need to store everything associated with a particular individual or process – but we should watch out for tendencies to become Organisational Hoarders!

 

Just in Time.   One of Dave Snowden’s truisms is “you don’t know what you know until you need it”. We need a way to harness current knowledge and recent experience right in our moment of need. We’re not going to do battle with the SharePoint search function, and we’re not going to read through a pile of case studies or lessons learned reports in order to separate the signal from the noise.

And how do we know that yesterday’s lesson will serve today’s problem? We don’t have time for that – we have a real need, a desire to satisfy that need right now and we can’t ask questions of our documents!

How do we best respond to that? Just-in-time points us towards the tapping of formal communities and informal networks, inside and outside organisations. It’s the domain of knowledge jams on Jive and Yammer, questions to our Twitter networks. Face-to-face, it’s a great place to use techniques like Peer Assists and  “Speed Consulting”. Sometimes those interactions will point people back to content and documents, but they cut through the noise and provide access to a willing army of experienced volunteers – when faced with a cry for help – are often only too willing to help.

 

Just enough.   I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one. Lack of time, and lack of strategic focus are two reasons why we end up with a Just-in-Case approach to content and documents.

Curation takes time, and it requires expertise. It’s best played as a team sport rather than an individual perspective – but it makes a huge difference when it comes to creating an asset which educates and informs the reader/learner.

Are we planting vast fields of information assets? Or are we harvesting fruitful knowledge assets?  The latter is designed to provide just enough – and also to enable digging on the specifics details

 

Just for me.   Perhaps that should be the ultimate goal of our work an KM professionals.  To be able to mine the riches of just-in-case knowledge, to deliver it  at the moment I need it, to hone it down so that it’s the perfect fit (not too much or too little) for my knowledge gaps and can be easily applied… and to do it in such a way that it’s tailored for my personal needs.  Now that’s quite a proposition.

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It shouldn’t surprise me after all this time, but it does.

I’ve conducted around 30 interviews in two different organisations in the last couple of months, as part of some KM strategy work.  The answers to the question: “what does knowledge management mean to you?” are often so varied, and usually include just one or two components or approaches . People have such different perspectives on what knowledge management is – and it’s rare for anyone to connect the different components together in any kind of holistic framework. “It’s about how we  get the right knowledge to the right person at the right time.  Oh and it’s to do with networks and conversations too.”

To be fair, knowledge management has been poorly defined and communicated in the external world, so it’s little wonder that people in organisations often approach it like the blind men and the elephant – each sensing a part, but not the whole, and drawing their own conclusions.

Here’s a holistic model for knowledge management. It isn’t new (it’s based on the model from BP in Learning to Fly)- but it’s still relevant and current today and does a good job of plotting a route through the KM landscape. Let me build it up for you.

Start with the day-to-day matter of performance management and project management, where people and teams agree to goals and targets in order to deliver value which generally takes the form of profits for shareholders – or value for stakeholders.

How do they do this? By using and developing knowledge – their own expertise, knowledge from the team, elsewhere in the organisation, from professional advisors or others outside the organisation.

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It’s a given that KM needs to connect directly to the goals and objectives of the organisation. So how does knowledge management improve, or accelerate the way in which they are achieved?

Firstly, through the application of learning.  Learning before, during and after activities.
Without learning, we end up recycling old knowledge and documents – trapped between “connect and collect”, but not creating anything new.

  • Learning before: how do we know that we’ve tapped into what the organisation already knows, and can we make sense of what it is knowing today?
  • Learning after: how good are we at really learning and applying lessons from stories of personal experience?
  • Learning during: do we have a culture of continuous learning, reviewing and improving?

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With processes for learning before and after in place, it’s important to manage the outputs of those processes – and to continue to refine, collate and curate a living, evolving, media-rich “knowledge bank”, from which withdrawals and deposits can be made.

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…but of course, the capture knowledge is just a shadow of the knowledge which will always remain in the heads of individual experts, and within networks of people with questions, answers, experience and ideas. The reserves in this human knowledge bank are far greater.
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These networks and experts play a vital role in collating and curating knowledge on behalf of the organisation.  They have the current awareness and they understand the most pressing business issues. Who better to steward the knowledge than an emergent community of subject matter experts and practitioners?

Slide5So now we’ve connected performance and project management with learning, learning with codification, and codification with networks, experience and expertise.  The final part of the model recognises the role that culture and leadership behaviours and actions play to sustain an environment where these processes can thrive and interconnect.

What motivates people to make the time to learn, connect and collate knowledge such that the value and efficiencies have a chance to flow through and create the stories to inspire others?  How can leaders reinforce and role-model this?

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It can take a little time to give birth to this kind of a supportive culture – but then again, elephants to have the longest gestation period of any mammal, so we shouldn’t be surprised.

Continuing from my top ten KM consulting highlights (in no particular order!) from 2014…

6. Sharing Knowledge in the Offshore Wind community

The UK is a world leader in the Offshore Wind Energy business, and with multiple companies involved in planning, developing and constructing wind farms, there is huge potential for reducing the cost (and increasing the size of renewable energy “pie”) by sharing knowledge between the industry players – who happen to be competitors! It’s a classic example of tragedy of the commons.

I have been working with all of the main stakeholders over the past year to develop a community of practice, a common language, and a series of sharing workshops to help this group of companies to trust, share, connect and learn whilst respecting the commercial limitations which exist. Where of you start? Where are the safe places to begin knowledge-sharing? It’s an unconventional community of practice – but a fascinating one to work with.

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7. Communities in Copenhagen 

After nearly ten years of independent consultancy in KM, I finally managed to combine a business trip with an extra family holiday. My wife and daughters accompanied me to Copenhagen for a brilliant weekend, whilst I stayed on to work with Maersk Oil and help shape their work on communities of practice.

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8. The African Evaluation Association conference in Cameroon.

I have to admit, I love visiting new countries, so when I was asked to speak and deliver workshops at the AfrEA 2014 conference in Yaounde, Cameroon, it didn’t take much to persuade me.

Being exposed to the sheer breadth and depth of M&E activity in the development sector – and the natural way in which Knowledge Management dovetails into this important work was an eye-opener. Meeting Rituu Nanda, who has worked so hard with the AIDS constellation, building on Geoff’s work with UNAIDS which we wrote up in Learning to Fly, was a real highlight for me.

Oh and the bread basket was certainly eye-catching!

croc

 

9. Board Gamification in Syngenta

MAKE award winners Syngenta have been one of my longest-running clients, and I’ve had the opportunity to support their KM Strategy, Communities of Practice, Lessons Learned and Operational Excellence programmes. Whether it’s cartoons, glass knowledge-sharing awards, pocket cards or toolkits, I’ve always enjoyed their love of embedding knowledge in artifacts and their courage to innovate. One of the best examples of this was the creation of a board game about the early stages of leading of a community of practice, based on Snakes and Ladders. Of course, we called it “Snakes and Leaders”.
The game was used as part of an internal training programme for Network Leaders, and incorporated the ups and downs, celebrations and pitfalls of the first 100 days of a typical network, with some additional randomised surprises and challenges.

Here it is being played by fellow participants in the Knowledge Driven Performance consortium.

Snakes and Leaders

10.  Tearfund

Tearfund is a charity which has been important to me for as long as I can remember.  Their approach to After Action Reviews made it into Learning to Fly, and I had the chance to visit them to work on their Organisational Learning Strategy a few years ago.  Towards the end of last year, I was asked to join their People and Learning committee as an non-executive external advisor; something I really look forward to contributing towards.  What makes this extra special is that my eldest daughter Martha is also working with Tearfund on their No Child Taken campaign against Human Trafficking as a public figure, following her appearance on the Great British Bake Off (aka PBS British Baking Show), so we will be able to share knowledge over her cake experiments!

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Looking forward to seeing what 2015 has in store…

A while back I blogged about the value of experience from the film “The Kings Speech” – and the statement from self-styled speech therapist, Lionel Logue who, when cornered by the establishment about his lack of professional credentials, stated: “All I know, I know by experience”.

o-MUSHY-570Last year, the BBC TV series “Educating Yorkshire” was broadcast in the UK. It was a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a state school in the North of England, introducing us to the reality of today’s education, and the challenges for teachers and students alike.
The most memorable moment came when English Teacher, Mr Burton was helping Musharaf (aka “Mushy”), a student with a severe stammer, to prepare for his oral examination.  This was something of a lost cause, or so we thought, until Mr Burton had the courage to try something that he’d seen on the Kings Speech. He asked Mushy to try speaking whilst listening to music to through headphones – you can watch it here – it’s a heart-warming 5 minutes, and it went viral at the time. I challenge you to watch it and not shed a tear!

I recently read an interview that Mushy gave, where he said something that tingled my KM antennae.

“I thought Mr Burton was a genius until he lent me The King’s Speech afterwards, and then I realised he just copied that other man!”

Isn’t that interesting? He just copied that other man.

Applying someone else’s good practice in a new situation isn’t clever or innovative, at least, not in the conventional sense – but it still takes intelligent courage. In the clip, you can see Mr Burton is almost embarrassed to suggest that they try to  “just copy the other man”, and suggests it laughingly.

Whether it’s copying ‘best’ practices, or adapting good practices to a different context, we sometimes underestimate what it takes it takes to do this.
In some ways, the organisational motivation to innovate a ‘genius’ solution is greater than the recognition gained for copying or adapting. Something a bit like this?

failure matrix_Fotor

How much more effective would we be if we celebrated re-use and re-purposing of knowledge as much as we prized innovation?

Is there a way we can make is safer for the ‘Mr Burtons’ in our organisation to adopt and adapt what has worked for others?

It’s got to be worth a try…

 

 

 

 

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to appreciate(!) the connections between my world of KM and organizational learning, and the  philosophical mindset which underpins Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) pre-dates Knowledge Management. It has been around in its current recognised form since the mid 80s, and was first published as a discipline in 1987 when David Cooperrider  and Suresh Srivastva wrote their seminal paper for Research in Organisational Change and Development.

 

The video below sums it up nicely when he describes the conventional approach to improvement as viewing the organisation a “problem to be solved” –and how over time, a problem-resolution mindset can sap energy, goodwill and enthusiasm from the workforce.

I’ve heard accusations made that AI is somehow ‘dangerous’ because it artificially views the world through rose-tinted spectacles. My response?

Who are we to say that the lesson-learning, problem-discussing, improvement orientation which strongly influences us doesn’t come with its own pair of KM-branded Reactolite-tinted glasses?

Perhaps we just don’t realise that we’re wearing them (and perhaps that’s why some are so quick to look for the danger in other techniques!).  Our default perspective is not necessarily neutral and perfectly balanced, and it’s good to take a look our favourite tools and techniques and ask ourselves whether they reinforce a deficit view of the firm.

Having facilitated a number of KM-related workshops using an AI, I can vouch for the positive engagement power of the approach.  It’s still rooted in the reality of what we can learn from our own practice, but the conscious focus on what does it look like when we’re at our best gives a different kind of energy to the group, and expands their vision as to what is possible.

The four steps of an Appreciative Inquiry “4D” Summit are surprisingly simple:

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1. Discover. (Inquire into what works.)

This is a filtered process of reflection and storytelling to set the context for what is possible, building a “positive core” from the sharing of stories.

  • 2. Dream. (Imagine how good it could be.)

This is a creative vision-building step – constructed by amplifying the reality of the examples from the discovery step. The photo to the left  is from a UN KM and AI workshop in Addis Ababa , showing the positive core, and an engaged group creating their dream, stimulated with some inspirational photos of Africa.

3. Design. (Agree how good it should be.)

This is a prioritisation process, finding ways to connect the colourful hot-air balloon of a long-term vision to the ground with some actionable propositions.

4. Destiny. (Commit to what will be.)

Identify specific actions and start to plan for success.

An approach which combines Reflection, Storytelling, Visioning, Prioritisation and Action and generates positive energy for change? Why would I not want to employ that?

So if you’re a knowledge professional who hasn’t considered or explored Appreciative Inquiry, let me commend it to you as a valuable mindset to integrate into your KM toolkit.

Or to put it another way, provided we understand the perspectives and mindsets which can lie behind the techniques we recommend – then we can help our client organisations to maintain a nutritionally balanced diet of savoury lesson-learning, palate-cleansingly neutral sensemaking and sweet appreciative inquiry.

What’s not to like?

Knowledge Management has become an ever-increasing suite of interconnected tools and techniques – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed without a map.

Having bounced some early ideas around with Geoff, and spent far too many idle moments at airports fiddling with PowerPoint,  I think it’s time to stop tweaking and start sharing.  So here it is: my rendition of the KM Landscape  (click to enlarge).

KM Landscape

I wanted to try and show the breadth of techniques and processes, the connections between them, and also some of our neighbouring disciplines and opportunities for boundary collaboration.

It’s far from perfect  (I need more than two dimensions to really do the juxtaposition justice) – but hopefully it’ll illustrate some new places to explore.

Let me know if you find any new destinations, landmarks or pub walks to include.

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